Turkey Pulse

Despite its tough rhetoric, Turkey seeks way out of pastor impasse

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Article Summary
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says there is no problem with Washington that can’t be solved by focusing on the strategic partnership.

Ankara is trying not to show it by continuing with its defiant and dismissive rhetoric against Washington, but US Treasury sanctions against two Turkish Cabinet ministers for the continuing detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson have stung Turkey.

Despite its angry tone — and the “reciprocal” sanctions President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced against two US government officials — Ankara is now seeking a diplomatic way out of the crisis.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met in Singapore last week, on the sidelines of the ASEAN gathering, to try and overcome the impasse. Both sides said the talks were “constructive” although no breakthrough was announced.

In the meantime, a high-level Turkish delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal is heading to Washington to hold diplomatic talks scheduled to begin Aug. 8, Turkey's state-run Anadolu News Agency reported.

Ankara’s efforts are aimed at finding a balance between not caving into Washington but not burning any bridges either in order to preserve Turkey’s vital interests. However, it is difficult to see Erdogan coming out of this crisis without some loss of face, given that Ankara has limited capacity to hit back at Washington, and is steering well clear of any threat to shut down strategic US military bases in Turkey.

There is a realization behind closed doors in Ankara that allowing Turkish-American relations to deteriorate beyond a certain point will not only weaken Turkey’s hand in Syria, but also hit the Turkish economy. These are the two issues of vital and immediate concern for Erdogan’s administration.

Ankara and Washington are currently negotiating the evacuation of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from the northern Syrian city of Manbij, and trying to lay the groundwork for a jointly agreed-upon administration for the city.

The dramatic drop in the already weak Turkish lira’s value against the dollar, after the United States announced sanctions against Turkey’s justice and interior ministers over Brunson’s incarceration, is also forcing Ankara to take a realistic look at the current crisis with Washington.

Meanwhile, if there is any chance (and that is a big if) of securing the extradition of the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of planning the abortive coup against Erdogan in 2016, Ankara knows this will also be lost if tensions with Washington continue to rise. The American side wants more concrete evidence against Gulen, who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania, and talks on this issue are ongoing, too, even if they have been fruitless to date.

Erdogan knows he can’t afford to give his support base the impression that he is climbing down in the Brunson crisis, and continues to ply his rhetoric involving the United States. However, he is more nuanced now.

Addressing a women’s congress of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara on Aug. 4, he claimed that President Donald Trump had been “fobbed” into taking the position he did against Turkey over the Brunson case.

“Let me tell you that I know very well who set this up and Mr. Trump has to spoil this game,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan’s words have to be taken against the backdrop of a vitriolic campaign in the pro-government Turkish media aimed at highlighting a “Zionist-evangelist plot against Turkey.”

Kurtulus Tayiz of the Aksam daily, for instance, wrote that “Brunson was being used as a weapon by Zionists and evangelists to get the world to attack Erdogan … because they see him as an obstacle to their plans in the Middle East.”

Erdogan said Turkey will stand up to the United States, and announced that reciprocal sanctions had been imposed on two US government officials, whose assets in Turkey, if they have any, would be frozen. He did not specify who these officials were.

Nevertheless, Erdogan continued on a more positive note and said there was no problem with the United States that couldn’t be solved by pushing the strategic partnership understanding to the foreground.

“We don’t want to be part of a lose-lose-game,” he added, saying that diplomatic channels between Ankara and Washington had been activated intensely to overcome the current crisis.

Cavusoglu, in his brief statement to the press after the 45 minutes of talks with Pompeo in Singapore last week, told reporters that an agreement had been reached to solve existing problems between the two countries through diplomatic channels. He did not refer to the Brunson case.

Pompeo was more specific in his remarks to the press a day after his meeting with Cavusoglu.

"I had a constructive conversation with my counterpart yesterday. I made clear that it is well past time that pastor Brunson be free and permitted to return to the United States and that the others being held by Turkey also similarly be freed as well," Pompeo said. "I am hopeful that in the coming days that we will see that occur," he added.

Rather than toning down on its demand regarding Brunson, Washington is seen to have has upped the ante by also demanding the release of other US citizens, and US consular staff, being held in Turkey on terrorism charges, which the American side maintains are baseless.

Writing for the opposition news portal Gazete Duvar, Ilhan Uzgel, an expert on Turkish-American relations, contended that Ankara’s plan to use Brunson to get what it wants from Washington has misfired badly.

“A point has been arrived at where the policy of throwing the citizens of Western countries into prison and using them for political bargaining is running dry,” Uzgel wrote.

Turkey has also arrested citizens of various European countries, accusing them of being supporters of Gulen or the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), or both as is the case with Brunson.

There is no indication that Brunson will be released by Turkey “in the coming days.” Erdogan simply can’t afford the loss of face if Brunson were to be released within the timeline specified by Pompeo.

Brunson’s next court hearing is in October, and there are Turkish press reports that indicate that Ankara and Washington are working on a formula that will secure his release then.

According to these reports, Brunson will be exchanged for Hakan Atilla, a senior executive from the state-owned Turkish Halkbank, who received a three-year prison sentence in New York earlier this year for complicity in circumventing US Iran sanctions.

It is also being reported that the American side will impose a low fine against Halkbank under this deal. Turkey’s refusal to comply with Washington’s latest Iran sanctions may make this difficult, though.

If these reports prove to be correct, Erdogan will still come out with some loss of face. Securing Atilla's release may go part of the way in helping him, as will a smaller fine on Halkbank. The big issue involving Ankara’s demand regarding Gulen, however, will remain unsolved.

It was Erdogan, after all, who pushed the “preacher for a preacher” formula last year when he said that Brunson could be exchanged for Gulen.

He will have failed to achieve this in a “Brunson for Atilla” deal, a point that will not be lost on the opposition at home.

In the meantime, in some Turkish media outlets that stand close to the government, voices are emerging that have started to question the basis of the Brunson case.

Yildiray Ogur of Karar daily — which appeals to more liberal AKP supporters — pointed to remarks by Cavusoglu in a recent interview in which he said Turkish officials in Ankara were not even aware of Brunson’s arrest two years ago.

“There is a difference between the government’s narrative on pastor Brunson, and the ‘CIA agent preacher’ narrative of the prosecution and the media,” Ogur wrote.

“The government is negotiating [with the United States] aware that it is not dealing with a FETO- [Gulen] and PKK-linked CIA agent,” Ogur said.

Retired Turkish Ambassador Ali Tuygan believes that Turkey and the United States are locked in an “unsustainable situation” today, given the large number of issues clouding ties.

“The Brunson case which does not figure on the top of that list will be resolved at some point but the damage done will last,” Tuygan wrote in his Diplomatic Opinion blog. “And, the erosion of mutual trust will continue unless a major effort is undertaken to reverse the downturn,” he added.

Ankara clearly faces some hard choices in the coming days and weeks if it wants to start normalizing ties with Washington.

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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